Once upon a time, long before I moved to London, I used to enter Oxfam with a heady sense of adventure about the the delights I was sure to discover. And discover I did, knocking aside the elderly in my greedy quest to rifle through the rails, gathering great swathes of questionable but utterly brilliant items into my arms.
My quest was far flung, reaching all corners of the UK- Liverpool, Manchester, Edinburgh, Norwich, Chester, even Derby. You see I was dedicated to my desire to find second hand sartorial happiness. And find it I did, in the form of peach pullovers, pleated floral fancies, oversized jackets and strings of battered beads. I would scurry home with my haul like a woodland animal, sketching ambitious pictures in my mind of what my garments would look like when worked cleverly into an elegant ensemble. Of course many required work - a nip and a tuck here and there, a hem shortened or lengthened (mainly shortened), a sleeve snipped off. In fact I still have a box under my bed full entirely to the brim with severed sleeves, lounging in a tangled pile as if waiting for a group of lost arms to arrive and claim them.
As a teen I subjected my poor mother to many a distressing retail experience, once dragging her into a charity shop only to rummage elbow deep in a plastic drum helpfully labelled '10 PENCE TRAMP BIN' in an effort to dig out a particularly pleasing scrap of peach cotton which actually turned out to be a large pair of stained control pants. At this point an actual homeless person turned up to try his luck in the bin of dreams. As I grudgingly stepped aside, forced to acknowledge his need as greater than mine, my mother started to have mild convulsions, muttering something under her breath about how we needed to get back in the car immediately and go home so I could wash my hands (and possibly my entire body).
As time passed I started to see an increase in the number of establishments pronouncing themselves 'Vintage Stores'. As a teen I would rifle and pillage my way around Manchester's Northern Quarter for hours, salivating over floral dresses and 70s sports tees. After a short while I began to realise that aside from the occasional gem, these shops were really just a slightly more weathered (and overpriced) version of the high street, dressing girls head to toe in secondhand uniforms of floral tea dresses and flouncy blouses. Increasingly it was 'reformed' or 'recycled' vintage that was most popular, simply using secondhand material to create rack upon rack of essentially the same dress or playsuit.
On moving to London this manifested itself even more clearly (particularly the overpriced part) and I yearned for a good old-fashioned charity shop that wasn't pretending to be anything other than just that. I missed the smell (which ranged from vaguely unpleasant to delightfully musty depending on the outlet), the people (who ranged from devastatingly brilliant to awkwardly indifferent) and the time spent sifting through utter rubbish before hitting what you were looking for (which ranged from 30 seconds to 45 minutes).
The trouble is that in London you have to work that bit harder to find a good charity shop. Everything remotely central is classed as vintage/reclaimed/thrift and therefore extortionately priced with far too carefully edited a selection of 'cool' and 'tasteful' garments. Where's the fun in that? Catford has been very successful for me (excellent embarrassing smock creations), as has South Woodford (odd accessories and blouses that make you sweat excessively). I have ventured further afield from the capital via train to far flung lands such as Eastbourne (excellent knitwear) and certainly plan to indulge in more of these trips. As long as I return with a bulging carrier bag of questionable items I'm happy as Larry. Normally my favourite finds are those that paint expressions of utter horror or disbelief on the faces of any unfortunate bystanders/family/friends as I proudly extract the garments from the bag.
Anyway, the point is that vintage shops are boring. They're a glorified version of the high street and the selection is so carefully thought out that really you know you could pick something with your eyes closed and it would be perfectly socially acceptable and most definitely wearable. For me, a secondhand item has to be fun and a little bit risky- you have to be able to play with it and chop it up, all the while pondering ecstatically over the fact that you purchased it for less than the price of a chocolate bar. How infinitely satisfying.
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